“I was in prison and you visited me.”
I have never been particularly active in prison ministry; admittedly, that’s an aisle I’ve been leery to cross. As a seminarian, I used to visit in the Chatham County prison (south of Chapel Hill, North Carolina) on some Sunday afternoons, along with my supervising pastor at the time. He and I had a lot of disagreements about life and theology (I was very young and knew it all, back then!) – but the Rev. Carlton Hirshi, a tough little pastor from New York City, faithfully visited these incarcerated local men, sharing with them encouragement and prayer. I tagged along, mostly staying nervous and quiet…but I remember. Then during my pastorate in Ephrata back in the ‘90’s, I visited the husband of a new young couple in our congregation when he spent time in jail in center city Lancaster. Other than that, I’ve only selectively honored the King’s “when was it?” admonitions as the nations are judged in Matthew 25.
Casting a vision for prison ministry, and then providing resources for disciples to do it, is a leadership task in the local church. In our Fall charge conferences on the North District, I’ve presented two specific opportunities for our churches to “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison wih them…” (Hebrews 13:3a) Thank you to those who have turned in Christmas cards for incarcerated prisoners around the Eastern PA Conference in the upcoming holiday season, and to our two collection sites (Shamokin: St. John’s and Bethlehem: Epworth). Next weekend, November 12-14, folks are invited to participate in an on-line Art Show featuring creations by some of the men housed in the Coal Township correctional facility on the North District. This is a delightful, annual gesture of “Prison Ministry” which we started in my final year at Hopewell. Promotional materials for use in your church, including a brief video, are on our District website and included in this communication. Proceeds from the Art Show will help to bring a measure of dignity to these prisoners, and will specifically empower them to make a financial contribution to the missions work of our denomination.
The gospel mandate continually pushes us to be with those people living on the margins of Life. For many of us inside our comfortable churches, prison ministry has been just a little bit too edgy…but proclaiming “release to the prisoners’” (Isaiah 61:1d) is still in the job description. Take it one step at a time, and see what The King might do.